Friday, 15 October 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Yellow Wife, Sadeqa Johnson (2021)

It’s hard to read historical fiction set in the American South in the nineteenth century, especially if the novel’s protagonist begins life enslaved and faces a series of horrific trials, as she struggles to win her own freedom and the freedom of her children. 

Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife (2021) doesn’t shy away from the horrors of existence on a plantation and then in a jail in Virginia, as she tells the story of the fictional Pheby Delores Brown. Pheby may be a work of Johnson’s imagination, but her experiences mirror many real histories. Her mother is an enslaved Black woman, and her father a white slave owner. Her “yellow” skin is a curse more than it’s a blessing, as she’s repeatedly objectified and abused. 

Sold as a punishment for her true love’s escape, plantation-born Pheby finds herself at the Devil’s Half Acre, a jail and trading post in Richmond, and soon draws the attention of the jail master—i.e. the “devil” himself. Selected for her looks, Pheby is in a morally difficult position. She has more creature comforts than the many enslaved people who pass through the door and some modicum of power, but her rapist “husband” still holds her life, and the lives of her increasing number of children, including her Black son, in his hands. Johnson does a good job of giving Pheby agency throughout the novel, despite the difficulties of her position, crafting a character we can root for and believe in.

The novel began for me on familiar ground—the plantation setting reminiscent of other novels I’ve reviewed here, for instance Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (2014). But the descriptions of the Richmond jail, which is based closely on historical record, were fascinating and uncovered a new chapter of American history for me. No spoilers here, but I also enjoyed the realism of the ending and the different relationships Pheby’s “white” children have with their mixed heritage—this struck the right chord and felt like the perfect note to end on. I wish Johnson had dived even more into Pheby’s relationship with her own Blackness. Has she internalized any colorism? How does she relate differently to each of her children?

Overall, this is a fast read, which manages to entertain, while dealing deftly with horrific topics and pulling us into America’s divided past. I’d recommend it. 

Which nineteenth-century set, twenty-first century written novel would you like me to review next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Leave suggestions here, on Facebook, on Instagram or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Have you read my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and e-book. And make sure you subscribe to my writerly newsletter below.

Get updates on my writing

* indicates required


Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Simon the Fiddler, Paulette Jiles (2020)

What makes the main character of a novel likable? Two key strategies are to establish early something/someone your protagonist loves and something that they want. In Paulette Jiles’s 2020 novel, Simon the Fiddler (the latest book I’m reviewing as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series), she gives us both. 

We meet Simon in Texas in 1865. He’s a talented musician, seeking to avoid conscription into the Confederate Army. Soon though his luck runs out and he finds himself embroiled in the final days of the American Civil War. The majority of the novel is set following the South’s surrender as Simon navigates the complex, and often dangerous, world of the Reconstruction period. 

What does Simon love? Music. His fiddle is the talisman for his skill but also for his emotional connection with the art form, and Jiles puts the instrument in peril from early in the book to cement our connection with her main character.

What does Simon want? Stability. He yearns to be a landowner with a wife and children, and to create the family he, as an illegitimate orphan, never had. In short, this is an American Dream story. The modesty of Simon’s wants makes him instantly relatable, and how he hard he has to work to achieve them gives us the meat of this by turns dramatic and violent, and melancholy and sensitive novel. 

Simon and the band of fellow musicians he falls in with have to grapple with the natural landscape of Texas, their lack of money and the logistical challenges of making more. They wear shirts riddled with bullet holes, wrestle with an alligator, and engage in regular drink-fueled brawls. We’re told: they always go for the fiddler. 

Despite these regular moments of high drama, I’d say the book is a slow burn, with the most plot-driven chapters clustered towards the end, as Simon seeks to rescue Irish immigrant governess Doris from her unscrupulous employer (an officer in the Union Army).

I’d recommend the book to all readers of historical fiction. There’s enough Civil War commentary here to engage readers of military historicals, but this is a novel that moves seamlessly between the battlefield, the drawing room, the tavern, and the great outdoors. I found myself rooting for Simon from the first few pages to the very end—a testament to Jiles’s prowess as a writer. 

What nineteenth-century set, twenty-first century written novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Have you read my nineteenth-century set novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available wherever books are sold, in hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook. For regular updates from this blog and on my writing, subscribe to my email newsletter below.

Get updates on my writing

* indicates required


Sunday, 19 September 2021

Writers’ Questions: What Mistakes Do Beginner Writers Make When Working on a Novel?

Since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I’ve been answering aspiring authors’ burning questions about writing and publishing as part of my Writers’ Questions series.

Today I’m tackling the biggest mistakes newbies make and the traps they can fall into when penning that first book (trust me, I’ve been there). This list isn’t exhaustive and it’s more focused on process than craft. Check out the rest of the series for more sentence-level insight and introductions to technical topics.

So, without further ado, let’s get into the mistakes…



Jumping the gun

You got there! You typed “The End” and the novel that’s taken you months, or even years, to write is finished. This is definitely a moment to celebrate. So treat yourself, pop a champagne cork, call up a friend. But, whatever you do, don’t immediately hit “send” and shop your manuscript to every agent and editor in the business. If you haven’t edited the novel, through several rounds of revisions, it’s not ready. If no one else (or only your parent or partner) has read it, it’s not ready. If you haven’t read it imaginary cover to imaginary cover again and again until you could almost recite the entire novel, it’s not ready. Sorry! You’ve achieved a lot, but there’s still work to be done.


Talking about your book too much

Writing doesn’t have to be a dirty secret. Plenty of authors now document their full drafting journeys via social media, and if that motivates you, I say, go for it! However, in my experience, talking in detail about the plot points of my work in progress even to just one friend is usually counterproductive. It deadens some of the urgency I feel to “tell” a story, making it harder to stay motivated, and it leaves me vulnerable to receiving feedback when I’m in a creative vs. an editing mode (i.e. not ready to hear it).


Getting stuck on just one thing

Vague, I know. But the biggest “things” I see early career writers getting stuck on include research (especially in historical fiction), world building (especially in science fiction and fantasy), and first chapters (this can happen to any of us). Are research and world building key parts of the writing process? Yes. Is it a problem when you’re so lost in them you’re not writing? Also, yes. At some point, you need to draw a line in the sand and start writing. You can “fix” details later. The same thing goes for first chapters. They’re really important, but if rewriting Chapter 1 ad nauseam is prohibiting you from working on Chapters 2-29, you have a problem.


Being too ritualistic about writing

Drinking a glass of lemon water, meditating for 20 minutes, and doing a yoga session to unlock my creative flow, before sitting down at an antique writing desk with a mug of tea to my right and a cat on my lap, sounds lovely, but this isn’t how books get written. Books get written by writers deciding to write whenever and however they can, even if that means in less than ideal circumstances. If you’re envisioning the author profile a journalist will write about your perfect writing nook but you haven’t passed 10k words, it might be time to reassess…


Being impatient

With yourself and with the industry. If writing a book was easy, everyone would do it. You have to put in the time to hone your skills and make your novel as good as it can be. There will be many hours of work, and, once you’re ready to try to find a publisher, there will be many more hours of waiting. If you know patience isn’t your strong suit (it’s definitely not mine!), experiment with the powers of distraction. Hint: the best form of distraction is always writing another book.


So that’s what I’ve got for you today—five big mistakes to avoid when starting out on your writing journey. I hope the blog post has been helpful and that you’ll consider reading my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, if you haven’t already. I’m always open to topic ideas for my Writers’ Questions series, so please contact me via Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. And make sure you sign up to my monthly email newsletter below. 

Get updates on my writing

* indicates required


Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Writers’ Questions: How can I beat writer’s block?

In my Writers’ Questions series, I’ve been tackling need-to-know topics about the craft and business of writing, but in today’s post it’s time to get a little more emotional. If you’re a writer you know how great it feels when you’re in the zone. The words flow. Time passes quickly. You meet your word count goals with ease. But what about when you’re just not feeling it? How can you become unblocked, so you’re not just staring at an empty page?

I’ve blogged before about motivation, including making and finding time to write, so I’m going to skip over that here and presume you have all the resources at your fingertips and the desire to write inside you. But it’s just not happening. Now what?

Outline

Maybe you’re stuck because you don’t know what happens next in your book. If so, perhaps it’s time to try plotting vs. pantsing (i.e. flying by the seat of your pants). I’ve written a full post on the pros and cons of outlining novels and how to go about this approach.

Switch formats

If you have a day job that involves staring at a computer screen (or if you’re just a twenty-first-century human with a phone!) you might not want to stare at blue light in your evenings too. So, if your head is pounding as the white document blinks at you, close that laptop and pick up old-fashioned pen and paper. You might find that it helps to spill real ink.

Try a different location

I feel most creative while sitting on the floor. Why? I’m not sure, but try working in different places and see what makes sense for you. In previous years I would have advised you to try writing in a coffee shop or on a plane, but in our current reality, perhaps it’s time to discover new and unusual writing spots at home…

Jump to a scene you’re excited about

There shouldn’t be a single scene in your novel that’s boring. If there is, why is in your book? And I’m normally a proponent of writing in a linear way. But if you’re really struggling and there’s a pivotal moment in your novel (e.g. the climax, a first kiss, a dramatic fight scene) that you can picture clearly, skip to that part to get your writing mojo back.

Move your body

Have you been hunched over a computer for hours? Days? Weeks?! Maybe it’s time to move and leave your writing alone. Inspiration often strikes me while I’m on a walk or mid-exercise class, so get your blood pumping.

Reward yourself

If all else fails, bribery is the answer. You can have your favorite food for dinner. You can watch the next episode of that binge-worthy show. But if—and only if—you get those damn words on the page.


What other strategies do you have for beating writer’s block? I’d love to hear them! Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Want monthly updates from me on my blog and my writing, including my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress? Sign up for my email newsletter below.


Get updates on my writing

* indicates required


Friday, 13 August 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Arctic Fury, Greer Macallister (2020)

The novels I’ve reviewed as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on books written in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth, have run the gamut in terms of “historical accuracy”. Some writers were inspired by a real person’s biography, as I was in my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress. Others continued or expanded the stories of nineteenth-century fictional characters or imagined entirely original stories within historic settings. In her latest novel, The Arctic Fury, Greer Macallister dreams up an all-female expedition to the Arctic in search of the lost Franklin expedition. Did this really happen? No. Does it make for an entertaining story? You bet.

Virginia Reeve is employed by Franklin’s wife, under mysterious circumstances, to lead an all-female party in search of the missing men, but only some of the women return. She finds herself on trial for the murder of one of those who followed her North. The novel progresses in a dual timeline as we learn if Virginia will face conviction and potentially punishment by death, as well as what really happened on the women’s hazardous journey.

I appreciated the novel’s great pacing and Macallister’s ability to keep the trial storyline and the flashbacks equally engaging. I also loved how many of the women were inspired by real historical figures. An all-woman team mightn’t have gone to the Arctic in the 1800s, but there were plenty of intrepid female explorers, cartographers and mountaineers, whose exploits find new life in these pages. 

Macallister also makes the brave choice to give every member of the expedition her own point of view section, though Virginia is without doubt our main character. This means we get to hear a diverse array of voices and helps us form emotional connections with what could have been an unwieldy cast.

While a protagonist withholding information from us is a personal bugbear, the revelations of the ending are well done. This is a book that will appeal to those who love courtroom drama, as much as those intrigued by a story of women battling the elements.

Which recently published, nineteenth century set novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist

Get updates on my writing

* indicates required



Thursday, 29 July 2021

Review: A Hazard of New Fortunes, William Dean Howells (1889)

William Dean Howells’s 1889 A Hazard of New Fortunes is the sort of nineteenth-century novel that remembers it has a plot halfway through. 

The early chapters read like a time capsule of 1880s New York City, as Bostonian Basil March and his wife Isabel search for an apartment and explore what the metropolis has to offer, following his appointment as editor of a new periodical. Howells’s satire feels humorous, rather than biting, and there’s much that a twenty-first-century inhabitant of the city will find familiar. 

By later chapters, however, the novel seems transformed into something entirely different. The cast of characters, who felt like caricatures at the book’s opening, seem drawn towards a terribly realistic tragedy, which pulls off the writerly feat of being “surprising but inevitable.” Satire evolves into social commentary that doesn’t let readers off the hook. Where would our loyalties lie in the clash of outlooks personified by the uncultured capitalist Dryfoos and the idealistic socialist Lindau? And can the “reasonable” March (and by extension the reader) find a tenable position in the middle?

Class is not the only social question to come under scrutiny. Howells gives us beautiful, young female characters who defy their conventional roles in nineteenth-century society, and the novels that depict it. Alma Leighton begins the book as a young woman playing games with a man to wound him for neglecting her, but by the end of the novel her dedication to her art over matrimony is no ruse. Margaret Vance’s love is centered on her charitable works—something her family struggles to understand. 

Howells’s commentary on race also has a modern tinge. He doesn’t shy away from depicting the casual racism of the Northern characters, who, for instance, fetishize having Black doormen, even as they try to distance themselves from the Southern characters, including one who, more than twenty years on from abolition, is still advocating for reform, not destruction, of the “institution.”

The novel A Hazard of New Fortunes most reminded me of was E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), though the former’s structural flaws mean it’s remembered more for its multiple chapters on New York real estate woes than for its insight into the human condition. If you’re a fan of nineteenth-century realism with a love for New York, you’ll enjoy Hazard as much as I did. But, if only one of these things holds true, don’t forget—this is a novel of two halves.

What nineteenth-century novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to read and review next? Let me know. You can always contact me on Instagram or Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My own (nineteenth-century set) novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, paperback, e-book or audiobook, right now. And for monthly updates on my writing and my blog, sign up for my email newsletter below.

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required



Monday, 19 July 2021

Review: John Eyre: A Tale of Darkness and Shadow, Mimi Matthews (2021) – Part of the John Eyre Virtual Book Tour

I’m something of a Bronte fanatic. After all, my own debut novel (Bronte’s Mistress) was inspired by a real-life scandal that rocked literature’s most famous family. So I was delighted to be asked to participate in the virtual book tour for John Eyre: A Tale of Darkness and Shadow, Mimi Matthews’s new Bronte-inspired Gothic romance. As part of the tour, 35 online influencers specializing in historical fiction, Gothic romance, and paranormal fiction are celebrating the release with interviews, spotlights, exclusive excerpts, and reviews. 

John Eyre is (as you might have guessed from its title!) a gender-swapped retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). John is a tutor working under the employ of a fascinating Mrs. Rochester at Thornfield Hall. The housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax has morphed into a butler, Mr. Fairfax. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the maniac in the attic is a hidden husband, not a secret wife. 

What might be less obvious at first glance though is that this isn’t just a take on one nineteenth-century novel, but two. Bronte’s Jane Eyre meets Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula in this fast-paced read. This is not as outlandish an idea as it might seem at first glance. Author Mimi Matthews details in her Author’s Note several passages in Bronte’s novel that borrow from vampiric imagery (e.g. [Rochester:] “She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart.”). And the Gothic Yorkshire setting lends itself to violent, as well as psychological, horror. 

The structure of Matthews’s novel is more indebted to Dracula than Jane Eyre, as Mrs. Rochester’s letters and journal make up a significant portion of the narrative. While John is definitely our main character, this decision means that Mrs. Rochester is available to us in a way Bronte’s Mr. Rochester never is. Matthews’s Mrs. Rochester is still attractive and magnetic—to John and to readers—but our access to her makes her more human and less dangerous than her masculine namesake. It’s also tricky to entirely reverse the original power dynamic in a nineteenth-century setting. John is Mrs. Rochester’s subordinate by position, wealth, and class. But he is still a man, with all the privileges this entails, and he takes the lead romantically and physically at moments when I would have liked Mrs. Rochester to seize the reins. 

Matthews excels at building atmosphere and in delivering clarity at a line level even while her characters move in a fog of confusion. I delighted in the Gothic creepiness of the Milcote mists, the mute children John tutors (a distorted mirror of Jane Eyre’s talkative Adele), the casement bed (hello, Wuthering Heights!), and the role of laudanum in the plot. Obviously, this isn’t the book for those who prefer their historicals firmly rooted in reality, but if you enjoy paranormal details there are plenty to soak in here. 

One way in which John differs from Jane is in the loss of his religious faith, something which preoccupies Jane for much of the original book. This plays to the interests of modern readers, while also removing the driving force behind Jane’s flight from Thornfield, following her disastrous would-be wedding day—her desire to save her soul and her beloved’s. As a result of this change, the dénouement of the novel is action-packed, and the chapter inspired by Bronte’s most famous scene is soon followed by the climax.

John Eyre doesn’t pretend to be a serious examination of gender dynamics, as Jane Eyre often is, and questions of race are also less prominent than in other Bronte-inspired fiction (this Mr. Rochester still benefitted economically from slave labor, but there is no suggestion that Bertha’s heritage may be non-white).

I’d highly recommend John Eyre to other Bronte fans who are happy to read works that play with the sisters’ worlds. This is a book that is beyond anything else fun—fun to uninitiated readers, but even more fun if you’re familiar with its source material. 

Have you read John Eyre? What did you think of it? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. For updates on my blog, my book, and me, make sure you sign up for my monthly email newsletter below.

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required



Thursday, 8 July 2021

Finola & Friends: All the Episodes in my Instagram Live “Tour” for the Bronte’s Mistress Paperback Release

Last month marked the release of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, in paperback. In celebration of the occasion, I chatted live to 27 author friends over on Instagram, about all things writing-related! The full episodes are now available at any time over on my IGTV, so check them out at your leisure.

Episode 1: Lindsey Rogers Cook My conversation with Lindsey covered the differences and similarities between journalistic and creative writing.

Episode 2: Molly Greeley Molly and I chatted about Jane Austen, the Brontes, and reading lesbian historicals during Pride Month.

Episode 3: Julie Carrick Dalton Julie taught me about climate crisis fiction.

Episode 4: Molly Gartland My second Molly G spoke to me about writing a novel inspired by a painting and later meeting her muse!

Episode 5: Barbara Conrey Barbara let me know that there’s a town named Intercourse in Pennsylvania…


Episode 6: Greer Macallister Biographical or totally fictional? Greer and I spoke about the latest #histfic trends.

Episode 7: A.H. Kim A.H. Kim and I talked about our (shared) literary agent, Danielle Egan-Miller, and Asian American fiction.

Episode 8: Carrie Callaghan Carrie and I debated just why writers love cats so much. (We’re both fully on board.)

Episode 9: Cate Simon/Catherine Siemann Cate/Catherine and I spoke about the most popular historical sub-genres—historical romance and historical mystery.

Episode 10: Lyn Liao Butler Lyn and I chatted about everything from astrology to #PitchWars.


Episode 11: Sarah Archer Sarah’s background is in screenwriting, so we spoke about writing novels vs. writing for TV.

Episode 12: Rowan Coleman/Bella Ellis Rowan/Bella and I just won’t shut up about the Bronte sisters, of course!

Episode 13: Martha Waters Martha and I talked about romance, librarians, and romances featuring librarians…

Episode 14: Alison Hammer Alison and I both have day jobs in advertising—we drew parallels between our writing and non-writing careers.

Episode 15: Natalie Jenner Jane Austen was up for discussion again, as Natalie and I talked about being inspired by the greats.

Episode 16: Michael Stewart Michael and I share a love of the Brontes AND flagrant trespassing in the name of writing research, something he decided to show, not tell, in the midst of our interview…

Episode 17: Susanne Dunlap My episode with Susanne focused on audio, from music to podcasting.

Episode 18: Ellen Birkett Morris Ellen and I geeked out on writing craft. It was great.

Episode 19: Sarah McCraw Crow Sarah and I spoke about sexism and rejection, but still managed to have a lot of fun!

Episode 20: Lainey Cameron What is women’s fiction anyway? Lainey and I debated this industry term.

Episode 21: Linda Rosen Linda and I talked about querying and large vs. small press publishing.

Episode 22: Elizabeth Blackwell Like A.H. Kim, Elizabeth is another “agency sister.” We spoke about how we signed with our agent, as well as MBTI, and the time she interviewed George R.R. Martin (??).

Episode 23: Janie Chang Janie’s family history is MUCH more interesting than mine, so we talked about finding inspiration in genealogy, as well as cats (again)…

Episode 24: Steph Mullin and Nicole Mabry How do you write with another person?! I have no idea but writing duo Steph and Nicole do. They taught me about the joys and perils of co-writing.

Episode 25: Kris Waldherr What is Gothic fiction?! Kris and I have thoughts.

Episode 26: Amanda Brainerd Amanda and I talked about fax machines, but it was fascinating stuff, I swear.

Episode 27: Eddy Boudel Tan My final guest Eddy talked with me about Book 2, queer protagonists, and travel inspiration.

I’m so grateful to all these writers for taking the time to support my release and share their wisdom. They are an interesting bunch, so watch and listen if you can! If you haven’t read Bronte’s Mistress, consider ordering the paperback, or any other format, from the retailer of your choice. And remember to stay in touch—via Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, or by signing up for my monthly email newsletter below.


Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Wednesday, 30 June 2021

The Historical Novel Society North America Conference 2021…in Quotes

I attended my first Historical Novel Society North America Conference in Maryland back in 2019 and wrote a detailed review about my experience. In 2021, one published book and one global pandemic later, I attended my second—this time virtually. 

My Zoom set up for the conference

On this occasion, I wasn’t a newbie, who’d just signed her first book deal, but a speaker, appearing on the “Shaking up the Brontes” panel with Michael Stewart, Syrie James, and Rowan Coleman. This time around, attendees jumped between Zoom calls and live streams, rather than racing between conference rooms. And we all posted and pinged, rather than chatting over glasses of wine. But still, one thing remained the same—we were brought together by a love of writing and reading historical fiction, and had access to a wealth of collective knowledge.

For this blog post then, I’m not going to review the conference (there’s little to say except “bravo!” to the beleaguered board and their band of trusty volunteers), or to write exhaustively about every session I attended (attendees have access to all recordings for 90 days so I still plan to listen to panels that I missed). Instead, I’m going to share a series of quotes that stood out and my thoughts on them.


“Disturb me if someone’s bleeding.”

A question that authors are often asked is how we have time to write, which is why I appreciated this quote from Sarah Woodbury. It’s what she tells her (don’t worry, older!) kids when she sits down at her keyboard. Woodbury shared her successful self-publishing journey, which requires her to be consistently productive.


“The thing that scares you most is what you’re meant to be writing next.”

Sadeqa Johnson received this advice from a friend and it’s stayed with her. At a conference of historical fiction obsessives, it was fascinating to hear the perspective of someone who turned to a historical subject (in The Yellow Wife) after first writing contemporary fiction. I liked her advice to make the braver choice when starting to work on your next idea.


“The great advantage of historical fiction is that there is already an established audience of people who are fans of your period.”

Publishing expert Jane Friedman gave this glimmer of marketing hope to the many historical fiction writers desperate to find readers for their books. She encouraged us to seek out the places where fans of our historical setting are already congregating online.


“Do characters have to be like your best friend? I think no.”

Nancy Bilyeau weighed in on character likability—something women characters are more often criticised for. One reason I love historical fiction is that it gives us the opportunity to enter the mind set of people from a different place and time with different values, so I’m in strong agreement with Bilyeau on this one. 


“They may have murdered people, but we like them.” 

Margaret George spoke about the merits of the morally ambiguous heroes we still love to root for (think Butch Cassidy, Robin Hood, or famous pirates). The majority of her examples in this vein were male historical figures, which interested me. Can our male main characters be killers, while female protagonists are expected to be best friend material?

My unimpressed conference buddy


“I don’t see it as my place to condemn.”

Lisa See has written about cultural traditions such as foot binding that might be difficult for modern audiences to understand, and she’s often asked by readers whether she wants us to come to specific conclusions on them. She sees her role as empathetic, rather than didactic, an approach that really resonated with me.


“I am happy to use real people for my own nefarious fictional ends.”

I’m surprised by how often I’m asked whether living descendants of Lydia Robinson have objected to my imagining of her life, so it was entertaining to hear Alex George talk unapologetically about borrowing from reality to make great fiction.


“It’s not a trend. It’s not a fad. It’s the way business should be run.”

This is what Denny S. Bryce had to say about the drive towards telling more diverse stories in historical fiction, and, in particular, the elevation of Black voices. Throughout the conference, she and many other writers and publishing professionals reiterated that inclusion isn’t just a conversation for 2021.


“Am I writing to explain this world to white people? I am not. I am not trying to translate.”

Leslye Penelope spoke about the intended audiences for her historical novels, and how for so long the assumed reader in this genre has been white. I loved the push to think beyond Black stories and characters to consider who we’re writing for and what cultural background we might be assuming.


“If a reader skips the sex scene they should miss part of the plot.”

Jennifer Hallock led a cozy chat on “good sex” in historical fiction. One takeaway? If your sex scenes are skippable, they aren’t doing their job. Good sex scenes aren’t just enjoyable in good fiction—they are vital to your story.


“What lies are people telling about themselves and what do those lies signify?”

I loved this question that Jeanne Mackin asks herself during the research phase. When she sees contradictions between what historical figures wrote about their own lives and other records, she asks herself what these lies and omissions could reveal about their characters.


“I hope that there’s an appetite from publishers and readers for novels about women who are totally unknown.”

One contradiction in the marketplace that was much discussed at the conference was publishing’s purported ambition to tell lesser-known stories from history, while it’s often marquee (i.e. recognisable) names that sell books. Marie Benedict expressed a desire I think many writers in the genre share—for the industry to elevate the stories of the truly unknown.


“You never hear a plumber say, ‘I just didn’t feel like plumbing today’.”

I’m not sure this statement’s entirely true (plumbers are allowed to complain too!), but I like the sentiment behind Erika Mailman’s words. Like her, I agree that writing is a job that takes perseverance, even when the going gets tough and the muse is silent.


Were you at the conference? If so, let me know what your favourite takeaways were—in the comments below, via Instagram or Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is now available in paperback, as well as hardcover, audiobook, and e-book. To stay in the loop about my books and blog posts, subscribe to my monthly email newsletter below. 


Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Writers’ Questions: What’s in a format? Hardcover, paperback, e-book and more.

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, came out in paperback yesterday (!), having been released in hardcover, e-book and audiobook in August 2020. So, in this latest post in my Writers’ Questions series, it felt apt to talk about the different formats books can be published in, and what you need to know about them as an author. Check out the rest of the series for other publishing questions I’ve covered, on everything from finding an agent to formatting dialogue

E-book

A digital book might not be the first format you think of if I ask you to imagine “a book”, but I’m starting with this format for a reason. E-books are the cheapest type of book to produce and, for this reason, they’re a natural first choice for self-published authors as well as, nowadays, always part of the equation for traditionally published authors like me. E-books are accessible for those with eyesight issues and because of their lower price point. They also allow people to start reading right away when they order your book online. For these reasons they are particularly popular in high volume genres (think of readers who race through several romances or mysteries a day), but e-book sales are now crucial no matter what you write and for whom.

Hardcover

Not every book comes out in hardcover, but those that do seem to fall into four main and overlapping categories. 1: Books deemed high brow/elevated/literary by a traditional publisher. 2: Books predicated to sell a lot of copies. 3: Self-published books, where the author wanted to see their book in this format. 4: Books that were paperback for the consumer market but which had a hardcover edition for libraries. In this last instance, this is because hardcover books are more durable than paperbacks, so can withstand the wear and tear of multiple readers. Hardcovers are more expensive to produce than paperbacks and retail at a higher price point. Typically, traditionally published writers receive a slightly higher royalty on hardcovers than paperbacks.

Paperback

The modern publishing industry distinguishes between two types of paperbacks—trade paperbacks, of the kind you find at bookstores, and “mass market” paperbacks. Mass market paperbacks are shorter, fatter books, printed on lower quality paper, which you might pick up at a mass grocery store. Again, not every book will have a mass market paperback edition. These are most common for bestsellers, genres with widespread appeal like romance and thrillers and authors with a huge readership.

Audiobook

We’re in the midst of an audio revolution, and this has affected the fiction business too. Yet, while increasingly popular, audiobooks are expensive to produce (prohibitively so for many self-published writers), and not every traditional publisher will exercise audio rights even if they purchase them. Some established writers have sought to have the audio rights to their backlist returned to them, to self-publish and ride the audio wave. Meanwhile, pay-per-minute vs. credit business models for audio are gaining popularity abroad, demonstrating that the audiobook landscape it still evolving.


So, there you have it. I hope that this quick overview has been helpful for you as you navigate the complex world of publishing. Check out the other posts in my Writers’ Questions series here and get info on my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, (now in all of these formats!), here. You can always contact me on Facebook or Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And you can stay in touch by signing up to my newsletter below.



Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Friday, 11 June 2021

Introducing Finola & Friends: An Instagram Live “Tour” for the Bronte’s Mistress Paperback Release

It’s June 2021, which means it’s release month for the paperback edition of my novel, Bronte’s Mistress. If you love historical fiction and/or the Brontes, and are in search of a great beach read for this summer, pre-order your copy now!

In honour of the occasion, I’m doing something a little bit different—an Instagram Live “tour” talking to author friends I’ve made over the last year and a half. It’s my way of thanking them for their kindness and support, and it means I get to tell you about lots of other great books you should read, while celebrating my own release.

The tour kicks off on June 16th. Make sure you follow me on Instagram to be notified when I go live!


Here are the authors I’ll be speaking to, in order of the events:

Lindsey Rogers Cook, author of two books about Southern families, How to Bury Your Brother and Learning to Speak Southern.

Molly Greeley, the writer behind two novels inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I reviewed her first novel, The Clergyman’s Wife, on this blog, and blurbed her latest book, The Heiress.

Julie Carrick Dalton, author of Waiting for the Night Song, a novel about friendship and secrets.

Molly Gartland, whose novel, The Girl from the Hermitage, takes us from the siege of Leningrad in 1941 to 21st-century Saint Petersburg.

Barbara Conrey, USA Today bestselling author of Nowhere Near Goodbye, a novel about a mother’s love vs. a doctor’s oath.

Greer Macallister, bestselling historical novelist. Her latest book, The Artic Fury, is about 13 women who join a secret 1850s Arctic expedition, and the sensational murder trial that unfolds when some of them don’t come back.

A.H. Kim, author of A Good Family, a novel that fans of Orange is the New Black should check out.

Carrie Callaghan, author of two historical novels—A Light of Her Own, inspired by Dutch Golden Age painter Judith Leyster, and Salt the Snow, the story of an American journalist in 1930s Moscow.

Cate Simon, author of historical romance novel Courting Anna, about a woman lawyer in 1880s Montana Territory and an outlaw who crosses her path.


Lyn Liao Butler, author of The Tiger Mom’s Tale, a novel about a woman returning to Taiwan to confront the scars of her past.

Sarah Archer, romance novelist. Her novel, The Plus One, tells the story of a robotics engineer who builds a boyfriend to have a date to her sister’s wedding.

Rowan Coleman, aka Bella Ellis, author of the Bronte Sisters Mysteries series. Check out my review of The Vanished Bride, her first novel starring the Bronte sisters as sleuths, here.

Martha Waters, writer behind Regency romantic comedy novels To Have and To Hoax and To Love and To Loathe

Alison Hammer, writer of upmarket women’s fiction. Her novels You and Me and Us and Little Pieces of Me both focus on family relationships.

Natalie Jenner, author of international bestseller The Jane Austen Society. Read my write up of the novel here.

Michael Stewart, another Bronte-inspired novelist. I reviewed his novel, Ill Will, about Heathcliff’s “lost years” in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights here.

Susanne Dunlap, author of 10 historical novels. Her latest, The Paris Affair, is a tale of music, mystery, love, and murder in pre-revolutionary France.

Ellen Birkett Morris, author of Lost Girls, a short story collection exploring the experiences of women and girls as they grieve, find love, face uncertainty, take a stand, find their future and say goodbye to the past.


Sarah McCraw Crow, author of The Wrong Kind of Woman, which transports us back to the 1970s and explores what a woman can be when what she should be is no longer an option.

Lainey Cameron, award-winning author of Amazon bestseller The Exit Strategy, a novel about sexism and the power of female friendship in Silicon Valley.

Linda Rosen, writer behind The Disharmony of Silence and Sisters of the Vine, both great book club picks about women reinventing themselves despite the obstacles in their way.

Elizabeth Blackwell, bestselling writer of four novels. Her latest, Red Mistress, tells the story of a woman who breaks with her past to become a Soviet spy in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

Janie Chang, bestselling writer of historical fiction with a personal connection. Her latest novel, The Library of Legends, explores China’s recent past and is an evocative tale of love, sacrifice, and the extraordinary power of storytelling.

Nicole Mabry and Steph Mullin, a writing duo whose thriller The Family Tree, will be published later in 2021.

Kris Waldherr, author of 19th-century set Gothic historical The Lost History of Dreams, which I reviewed here.

Amanda Brainerd, author of The Age of Consent, literary fiction set in 1980s New York City, where David Bowie reigns supreme. 

Eddy Boudel Tan, award-winning author of the novels After Elias and The Rebellious Tide.


Thank you so much to all the writers who’ve agreed to be part of this, and to everyone who orders a copy of the Bronte's Mistress paperback. It means so much. Stay in touch—via Instagram or Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And make sure you sign up to my monthly email newsletter below.


Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Friday, 28 May 2021

March/April 2021 Articles about Bronte’s Mistress

It’s now under a month until the release of the Bronte’s Mistress paperback! And I’m continuing my roundup of press, with a post covering articles about the novel that were published in March and April this year.

Fellow historical novelist, Asha Lemmie, who I did an event with in September last year, recommended Bronte’s Mistress to Good Morning America fans, in a piece about Women’s History Month. Check out her other picks, along with Fiona Davis’s here.

Nicholas E. Barron republished our 2020 interview on Medium. He asked me questions about Oxford, research surprises, Lydia’s relationship with her daughters, and more. And Bronte’s Mistress got a shout out in another Medium article on how adults can embrace “Back to School” rituals to make first days more bearable. 

I spoke to A Sweat Life about how people can reach their reading goals. The Bear View gave Bronte’s Mistress a great review

Meanwhile Sharon Van Meter included my novel in a list of the best books that illuminate lesser-known historical events for Off The Shelf. Bringing us full circle, Asha Lemmie’s Fifty Words for Rain was also featured in the same article!

I’m getting busy again with events, giveaways and more planned for the Bronte’s Mistress paperback release. But if you’d like me to talk to your book club or interview me for your blog, get in touch—via Facebook or Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. For monthly updates from me on my books, blog and other writing, sign up to my email newsletter below.

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Thursday, 20 May 2021

Writers’ Questions: Adult, YA, Middle Grade and More—Who Am I Writing For?

There was nothing I hated more as a child than feeling embarrassed, but I’ll share one of those youthful humiliations with you today. 

When I was eight or nine, a grown-up family friend asked me what I was reading, listing off books written for children. I answered, with all the pretension I could muster, that I “preferred to read adult books.” I was met by guffaws, though I didn’t understand why. Later that day my mother explained that “adult books” might be taken to mean erotica.  

Now I look back at this incident and wish I could tell my younger self that technically she was right—while adult bookstores may be purveyors of X-rated reading material, in the publishing industry, Adult is the categorisation given to all books aimed at an 18+ readership.

Today, I’m an author of historical fiction for adults, but this memory isn’t the only confusion I’ve encountered when it comes to publishing’s age categories. Beginner writers are often unsure about the industry’s distinctions and what it is they themselves are writing. So, in this latest post in my Writers’ Questions series, I’m diving into the topic, with the large caveat that I myself do not write for children.

So let’s get into it. The age categorisations you’re most likely to encounter in fiction are Adult, Young Adult, Middle Grade, Chapter Books, and Picture Books. 

Picture Books are those read to children or read by them in the early stages of their literacy journey. Chapter Books are for the more advanced child reader and are long enough to be broken into chapters. Middle Grade books usually star a pre-teen protagonist and are similar in length to a novella for adults. Young Adult novels can be similar in length to Adult novels, but deal with teen characters, dilemmas, and themes. Adult fiction we’ve already covered.

This all sounds straightforward, but writers can still run into difficulties. Below are a few questions you should consider if trying to identify where your novel or novel idea might fit in the marketplace.

What age is your main character?

This seems easy, right? Writing middle grade? Make your protagonist 10. Writing YA? Your heroine is 16. But, while books for children almost always have child protagonists, Adult books could have a child protagonist too. 

Consider The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne, or Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. The first is a novel dealing with the Holocaust that has a small boy as its tragic lead. The second is a bildungsroman, which follows David from childhood into his adult years. Neither is meant for children.

What length is your manuscript?

Yes, there are exceptions. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is much longer than the typical middle grade novel. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is sometimes referred to as a novel for adults, but really it’s novella length. 

But exceptions are not the rule, and, if you’re aiming to have a debut novel published, it’s best to stick to the guidelines. There are plenty of other reference posts about this online, but basically: Picture Book – 50-1,000 words; Chapter Books – 4,000-15,000 words; Middle Grade – 20,000-40,000 words; Young Adult – 40,000-80,000 words (maybe longer for genres with heavy world building); Adult – 70,000+ words.

Is your book suitable for children?

I don’t just mean, “Does your manuscript include hot-button topics like sex?” (generally, not a topic prior to YA and not graphic even in YA). But is your book about topics that children will care about? Also consider the lesson your novel might be imparting. The younger the reader, the more didactic fiction tends to be, as we use books as tools to teach our kids how to navigate the world. 

What books would you compare yours to?

Identifying comparative titles could help you distinguish your age category, but make sure you’re looking at books published within the last few years! Children’s literature has shifted massively from the nineteenth century until today, and, while you may still feel inspired by classic children’s books, they won’t be your best reference point for saleability.


I hope these questions have been helpful in working out what you’re writing or writing next! Which topics would you like to see me cover next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which is very much for adults, is available in hardcover, audiobook, and e-book now, and the paperback will be released next month! For updates on this, my writing advice and more, sign up to my email newsletter below. 

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required